~~This post is a revised and updated version of an earlier post, which appeared here on August 12, 2010. ~~
Several years ago, on a very rainy autumn Sunday, my friend C. called. “Tomorrow traffic begins on the Zakim Bridge,” he announced. “Today, the bridge is open all afternoon for pedestrian crossings. Will you join me in this walk?”
My friend has a propensity for metaphor; he is a poet. The bridge is one of the great metaphors of American literature, a symbol that looks both ways: as a sign of optimism and faith in science and engineering, but also one of darkness, the waters below alluring poets and common folk alike to take the plunge if not physically then at least metaphorically.
And so we went, equipped with trench coats and umbrellas. The walk itself took about an hour, as we stopped, wiped the water off our hands and continued on, stood for a while at the railings looking down at the roiling waters below, talked to fellow pedestrians, and then continued. Then, when we had finished with the walk, we headed to one of the back streets of the North End for coffee and pastry.
What is it about bridges that makes them such special things? The rain was unrelenting and heartless that day when we walked the Zakim Birdge; the sky was colorless; the waters under our feet were strangely turbulent. Much like today, when I walked across the Boston University Bridge on my way to class.
I have walked across this bridge hundreds of times, over the course of two decades and more, back and forth, the drone of the cars below me, the wind in my back, its elevation at once exciting but also hinting of danger. The BU students may be immune to such stimuli so burdened they are these days with jobs and loans and the future, but for me the crossing of a bridge, all bridges, is still something of an event, always. On the BU Bridge, I have had moments of profound insight; I have made huge decisions (in a manner of speaking, for in the end decisions make us rather than the other way around). I even lost a scarf once as the wind was battering us all. The scarf flew away into the traffic below, and I did not bat an eyelash; I just watched it go, another loss to add to a long list, but also a beautiful sight to behold, all the sadness and hope of the pedestrian world.
Bridges are of human creation, their unintended sense of disproportion cast on us all–the pedestrian, the driver, the observer are all diminished in its shadow. Bridges are the roads of passage and connection, but they tell us other things as well: whether we are walking across them, or observing them from a distance, or driving in their lanes, we carry with us our mundane troubles and joys, our everyday preoccupations and concerns, our need for surprise but also predictability. We carry our excitement and our fear in equal measure. We carry our terror of the future and the unknown. Underneath us, the concrete and steel tremble, feel unsteady; the wind is heartless and the sky is indifferent. But crossing a bridge is a moment of intensity, a moment which opens onto the other side, the other.
My dear uncle, Vahé Oshagan, who has since passed away, himself also a poet, was getting ready for a high risk surgery some years ago; he had a weak heart and high levels of cholesterol. The day before he was to go under the knife, he asked his wife for a favor, a sort of final wish, just in case he did not make it back. He wanted to go across the Golden Gate Bridge one last time. She agreed. He did so, after having a big, hearty meal of fried eggs, bacon, and strong Arabic coffee. He survived the operation–and the crossing.
We do. Most of us.
Remember that. You will, too.